Strategies of Resistance

Indent: The Body and the Performative serves as a repository for a body of writing that stems (and then takes off) from the Gati Dance Forum’s engagement with teaching methodologies, research and performance-making, with the intention of adding to the critical discourse around performance practices in South Asia.





Locating Draupadi in the Poetics and Politics of Performance in Contemporary India

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi


The essay starts with a reference to the rhetoric of nationalism around a recent event when Draupadi, an adaptation of the translation of the well-known Bengali author Mahasweta Devi’s short story by the same name was staged as a play, by the students of the Department of English in an Indian University. The subsequent hate campaign and politicisation of a class presentation in the University shook many people in gender and feminist studies. The reading of the play as anti-national and not recognising its importance within the discourses within studies on gender, civil rights or English literature was seen as an extension of the political propaganda in the society.  In light of such complete marginalisation of issues of violence on women, this paper tries to bring together different ways in which the woman named Draupadi becomes represented in performances around her in India - travelling across time and geopolitical spaces, through the performances of the scene of game of dice, with representational or derivative interpretations of Draupadi of Mahabharata. In its non-linear narrative, it attempts to see Draupadi’s travel through time and space of performative representations as choices of reflections put forward by performers – thus giving her a specific role as the representative of women as vulnerable subjects in Indian society. The paper draws on examples from dance and theatre that are directly based on the story of Draupadi, a central female figure in the Indian epic in Mahabharata. It also draws on the story Draupadi written by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) and its theatrical rendition. Finally, it looks at a real-life situation in Manipur, and its possible connection to the theatrical representation it came to resemble. This paper is written to reflect upon the position of women in the context of national honour and the hegemonic structure of patriarchy, taking the story of Draupadi and its after-life. [1]


The Background

On September 21, 2016, Draupadi, an adaptation of the translation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story by the same name was staged as a play, by the students of the Department of English and Foreign Languages (at the Central University of Haryana) in a function commemorating her recent death. The story itself was already a part of the readings for the students and the play had the full support of the University administration.  On September 22, an aggressive hate campaign was organised by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who mobilised local families of army personnel to protest against showing the soldiers in poor light in the play.  The academics and students were accused of ‘anti-national’ activities. The University gave in to external pressures and distanced themselves from the two teachers responsible for the event, to allow an Intelligence Bureau (India’s internal intelligence agency) enquiry against both of them.


In reaction to the episode, concerned members of the academic community responded with a letter to the Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Haryana, in support of the two faculty, Dr. Snehsata Manav and Dr. Manoj Kumar who came under attack from the ABVP. 


Mahasweta Devi who, as you know, is universally recognized as a towering figure in contemporary Indian literature. Her writings, translated into most Indian languages, have highlighted the struggles of oppressed and marginalized women and men. Her story “Draupadi”, whose dramatized version has been highly acclaimed and performed all over India, deals with the sensitive but enormously important question of the ethics of deploying the armed forces in dealing with civil disturbances within the country. This question, along with specific instances of rapes committed by army personnel in different parts of India, continues to be debated in the Indian public media and has engaged the attention of political leaders as well as the courts.

-   An excerpt from the letter written by prominent academics.


From the present to the past


Naveen Kishore in conversation with Mahasweta Devi

Many ABVP supporters as well as the protesters who demanded suspension and severe punishment of both the faculty and the students, had never heard of Mahasweta Devi[R1] , had not read the play written by her or its translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, had not seen the play at the University or anywhere else, but were violently objecting to the supposed abuse that the soldiers who die for the country, were being subjected to. However, not knowing the reason for the protests was not important here. The motive was, and it was clearly to take advantage of the opportunity to play on the public sentiments around nationalism to suppress independent thinking processes of university students. As a result, like many other university spaces in the past year, the Central University of Haryana became another showcase of mobilising frenzy for instigating violence against intellectual freedom in the place of higher education. This episode is part of a wider pattern; the imposition of a virulent masculine nationalism intended to circumscribe intellectual freedom in places of higher learning.  


In this essay, I look back at different interpretations of the character of Draupadi that have been popular as themes for various forms of performing arts and offer a partial, fragmented history of various interesting turns in the journey of Draupadi across time and space. 


Draupadi of Mahabharata

Draupadi is a well-known and much discussed character from the epic Mahabharata. Amongst many other characters and an intricately complex story line, princess Draupadi – the daughter of King Drupada, emerges as one of the principal characters of the Mahabharata. Her name identifies only through her relationship to her father. The story sees Draupadi being won by Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers in a contest, where many princes are invited to shoot an arrow and hit a target in a competition announced for choosing a husband for the young princess. The story of finding a suitable husband takes an unexpected turn when Draupadi is introduced to the mother of the five Pandava brothers after Arjuna’s return home with the new bride and his four brothers. The mother, Kunti, without knowing what Arjuna wants her to see, orders him to share it with all the brothers. The eldest of the brothers, Yudhishthira takes a unanimous decision to follow the mother’s commands, of course without consulting Draupadi. Thus Draupadi becomes the wife of all the five brothers. Seen by many as the victim of deep-rooted patriarchal ethos, which do not acknowledge the meaning of the word ‘agency’ in the context of women – Draupadi’s fate is sealed that day, as the sons carry out the mother’s orders. This lack of human agency gets submerged and accepted under the love and obedience of the brothers, and the submissive acceptance of Draupadi herself. The objectification and the related lack of recognition of rights of the female subject gets highlighted in the story of the Mahabharata on one hand, while pointing towards the practice of polyandry as a mode of marriage.


One of the other popular episodes from Mahabharata in many of the Indian dance, theatre and television serials as well as cinema has been the public disrobing and humiliation of Draupadi by the brothers of the rival clan of the Pandavas, known as Kauravas. Well-known as Vastra-Haran/ Cheer-Haran (literally translating to forcibly taking away someone’s clothes), this episode focuses on a game of dice between the rival groups of princes born to two brothers, Dhritarastra and Pandu. As a precursor to the paper, it is essential to understand the way in which Draupadi has been configured as a character in the epic of Mahabharata. The story of Draupadi in the Mahabharata develops from her plight at the hands of her Pandava husbands, the related clan of the Kauravas, and the elders of her family by marriage belonging to the Kaurava and Pandava clans. Draupadi was lost in a game of dice by Yudhishthira, who gambled away his brothers, himself and all his movable and immovable wealth, losing to the Kauravas. According to the story, at the order of Duryodhana, the eldest son of the rival Kaurava family, she was dragged by her hair to the court by Dushasana, one of the hundred Kaurava brothers in the silent presence of the family elders. Among many versions of Mahabharata, it becomes clear that Draupadi did not accept this humiliation without challenging all present as witness. But a feminist interpretation of this public humiliation must record the silence of her five husbands and the family elders as consent, active complicity or abetment of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The story of Draupadi’s public humiliation is told in great detail in these various versions. But for this paper it is important to note that Draupadi remained standing in spite of the tremendous sense of helplessness and humiliation while Dushasana tried to pull her saree off her, as she prayed to the god Krishna to come to her rescue. Because of Krishna’s magical powers and blessings, her saree extended to an unending piece of cloth, pulling at which ultimately tired Dushasana out. In common parlance the act of Krishna in this episode is seen as that of a benevolent god’s merciful and timely act of saving the wife of five princes from public shaming. The overwhelming admiration popularly perpetuated through associated myths and stories of Krishna stops many from recognising the role that has been carved out for Draupadi and the resemblances between her and many other women over time and space. 


Draupadi has also been the focus of the works of a range of scholars, writers and artists. Many interpretations, including some powerfully feminist ones, have emerged, and so have remarkably stereotypical ones with Draupadi as a crying and shamed wife praying as submissive devotee to Krishna for rescue. Anthropologist Irawati Karve writes in her book Yuganta: End of an Epoch (1991):

Draupadi’s troubles were human, brought on by people of this world and particularly by her own husbands. Her experiences are described realistically, unembellished by flowery language or poetic conventions. In almost every episode, insult is piled upon insult, constantly adding fuel to the hatred in her heart. Two words keep recurring in reference to Draupadi — nathavati anathavat, “having husbands, but like a widow.”

…The Draupadi of the Mahabharata stormed and raged, but to the last moment she remained a faithful wife. There is not a single incident in her life that casts the slightest suspicion on her.[2]


The dramatic imagination around this scene has had many dance choreographers, theatre and film directors use this part of Mahabharata as a performance text, with or without dialogues or songs – some of whom see it as a spectacular moment worthy of staging. Some others work on its theatrical possibilities, and a few push the scene’s socio-political message to create a feminist performance.


This essay tries to bring together the different ways in which the woman named Draupadi becomes represented in performances around her in India - travelling across time and geopolitical spaces, through the performances of the scene of game of dice, with representational or derivative interpretations of Draupadi of Mahabharata. In doing this analysis, I would like to firstly frame the vulnerability and sense of power (or the lack of it) that is read and/or portrayed in the role of this important woman character well-known in India. Secondly, I shall attempt to see her travel through time and space of performative representations as choices of reflections put forward by performers – thus giving her a specific role as the representative of women as vulnerable subjects in Indian society.


From being interpreted as a semi-goddess to the vulnerable and submissive woman, Mahabharata’s Draupadi has been troubling the world of performance, literature, as well as feminist readings. In this context, it becomes interesting to see how Draupadi speaks to or through the women who have chosen to portray her. The tropes of traditional patriarchal interpretations are very much a part of the readings of the story of Mahabharata – which for many is a memory carried as a part of childhood experiences. A large number of performers therefore lack the ability to create new interpretations. Reaffirmations of patriarchal body politics, women’s lack of agency and representation seem the easiest to portray, and therefore Karve’s explanation of Draupadi’s character as a weak, submissive one who does not finally dare to break out of the patterns of domination, is what is most popular in performances involving her character.   I choose some specific examples among the endless number of performances, to discuss Draupadi as a mythical woman character and her representation and then move on to the journey of Draupadi as a representative of women in India, in the second half of the essay.   


Popular renditions of Draupadi in classical dances

Draupadi Vastra-Haran or Cheer-Haran appears to be one of most performed themes in all forms of classical dances of India, finding their place in the world through YouTube, Vimeo, and other forms of sharing services of the internet. From solo classical renditions to multi-media dance productions, the episode of Draupadi’s disrobing is common in dance. The popular rendition is a standardised version where the grand narrative is built around the theatrical pulling of Draupadi by the hair into the royal hall, by Dushasana, and her subsequent disrobing, where the pulling of the saree becomes a theatricalised scenographic extravaganza in many cases. The accompanying music being appropriately brought to a crescendo – the dramatic act of removal of the saree itself becomes the principal spectacle. Draupadi’s dancing and acting capability is tested in the manner she shifts constantly from the angry and wronged princess struggling to stop the process of disrobing, to the disdainful wife to finally the pleading helpless woman asking for Dharma to prevail through some miraculous interventions of god Krishna. The use of different specific techniques such as the circular movements as Draupadi’s saree is pulled off her, spectacular lighting, elaborate scenography, ensemble choreography and use of long pieces of fabric, shifts the focus from the misogyny within family structures and vulnerability of the women – to the skills of the woman performer or the choreographer, without any discernible effort on the re-reading or interpretations. It appears to be either an extension of the misogyny that exists in the quotidian society, or maybe many dancers don’t really engage with the gendered implications and would rather use the story to create a dance to show off the choreography.

I mention one conversation during a seminar – A Century of Negotiations (2014) – where a famous danseuse claimed that she projected as the highlight of her characterization of Draupadi the faith the latter continued to vest in dharma (justice) throughout the time she was publicly humiliated before all her husbands and even the family elders. The choreography, she said, brought out the strength the act of submission to god can give to a woman in the hours when she is fighting her battles alone. She also said that she spoke about this faith in self and prayers, even in her workshops in India and abroad, and all students, though young and belonging to diverse cultures, understood the message and were convinced by it. On being questioned about the justification of dance being accompanied by such judgemental, orientalist and conservative messages delivered to a group of girls, who instead need to be better equipped to handle all situations of gender-related violence themselves rather than waiting to be rescued, by putting their faith on some absent man, the dancer remained unconvinced and was even dismissive of the grave consequences of gender-related violence, and also was unwilling to interpret Draupadi’s predicament as an instance of  social/domestic violence against women.

The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana, and contains many of the philosophical concepts from the Vedas. Peter Brook's original 1985 stage play 'The Mahabharata' was 9 hours long, and toured around the world for four years.

Mallika Sarabhai played the role of Draupadi  in Peter Brook’s world-renowned play and film Mahabharata. The play and then the film reached an international audience worldwide when the story was made into a grand multicultural performance and subsequently filmed with an international cast by Peter Brook. Mallika was the only Indian dancer/ actor in the play and the movie by Brook.  Brook’s carefully constructed scene of Dushasana's disrobing of Draupadi after she was pawned in the game of dice, never suggested a serious physical assault like rape and her reactions and Krishna’s interventions remained rather inconsequential.  The spectacle produced by Peter Brook was devoid of any specific feminist insights, and played safe on social readings, and hence did not even claim responsibility of looking critically at characters or their interpretations[3].


Nathavati Anathavat  

Shaped and influenced by Irawati Karve’s interpretations of Draupadi in her book Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, Saoli Mitra, a well-known actress from West Bengal (daughter of actors Shambhu and Tripti Mitra) created a solo play Nathabati Anathbat – which was first performed on stage by Mitra in 1983. The script was published in Bengali in 2002 and English in 2006. The literal meaning of the name used for the play highlights again the fact that Draupadi was a woman married to five men and yet protected by none. Mitra was the woman narrator using poem, monologue, songs, movements and dance, along with a chorus group formed of male and female singers and musicians as well as co-narrators to traverse between the roles of the story teller and the character of Draupadi.


The position of narrator that Mitra carved out for herself, allowed her to insert the dualities of the actual story as well as her social and gender concerns around the formal and decorative position of equality granted to the women. She also skilfully navigated through her characterization of the royal princess and the actual ground realities about the everyday inequality and inherent patriarchy that continue to affect an ordinary woman’s life. Mitra used common Bengali ways of addressing her audience, for whom she changed from the narrator to Draupadi and back from time to time. As a narrator she called out to the audience, addressing them in Bengali as Babu Moshaay (respected gentlemen) – establishing the patriarchal nature of the society which has continued to be witness to the travails of women. Mitra’s hour-long monologue conveyed a sad and often indignant message about the injustice meted out to women, but remained largely a voice of the helpless sufferer even while conveying a strong message about the injustice experienced by women.


By telling Draupadi’s story, Mitra strategically inserted feminist narratives and assertions, often comparing Draupadi’s travails and concerns to general problems of women in a patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal society, and challenging the audience to reflect and respond. This technique created a discursive space within the theatrical event, forcing the audience to become more than just observers. She addressed the audience when Draupadi was being disrobed – “Good men, this is one such time when the weak and the helpless are being tortured, the wise heads of society keep silent!” In a song, she also lamented about all the hopes young Draupadi had as a young bride. She addressed the audience then, in her anger and cynicism, and said that Draupadi had always been the dutiful wife to all five of the Pandava brothers, bearing them all one son each, fulfiling all her responsibilities, and yet in times of need she had always stood alone and had to face insults and violence by herself. She urged, questioned and challenged the audience through her storytelling, about the silences and the humiliation that the world mutely tolerates against women and at the end of the play she as the narrator mentioned Irawati Karve’s (1991) observation regarding Draupadi saying, “Iravati says Draupadi takes on the pain of an epoch on herself[4].


Mahasweta Devi and her ‘Dopdi’ 

The next section requires me to go back to the recent controversy in Haryana, in the year 2016, around the staging of Mahasweta Devi’s play named Draupadi. It brought the powerful story written by Mahasweta Devi in Bengali[R3]  once again into the public domain, and requires us to see the life and complexity the prominent woman character Draupadi / Dopdi has acquired in different times and spaces within India. It is, however, particularly interesting that it was Mahasweta Devi’s play Draupadi that the ABVP sought to silence. A particular form of socially conservative patriarchal nationalism has long sought to claim Draupadi’s mythic body for itself; Mahasweta Devi’s play is an explicit challenge to that vision of statehood. The violent protest and the subsequent developments in Haryana University was not about Draupadi at all. Like in the original story, the focus was again on the valour of men in the military forces who defend the country. As far as the protest was concerned, the honour of the army men had to be defended publicly while the woman’s plight in the play did not even register as an important issue to the ever-growing rhetorical culture of rabid masculinity. 


Draupadi was first published by Mahasweta Devi as a part of a collection of short stories, Agnigarbha (Womb of Fire) in 1978 in Kolkata. The writer was well known for her Marxist feminist ideological commitment to social change. She won numerous accolades during her lifetime for her novels and short stories in the context of what Spivak calls “a presence of leftist intellectualism and struggle since the middle of the last century” (1981:385) and was considered to be a progressive vernacular writer in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.


Draupadi’s sense of honour and faith in justice and dharma (whereby she has complete faith in the patriarchal system in which her honour is to be protected by a supreme male authority – Krishna) is completely dislodged in Mahasweta Devi’s story. This story is set in the state of West Bengal in the times of the Naxalite rebellion against feudal landowners; a movement against upper caste exploitations and against existing caste, class and gender-based hierarchy.  In her story, the state is projected as immensely powerful and controlled by the upper caste land owners, exercising the right to use oppressive tools specifically fashioned for neutralizing disobedient subjects. Here, women, as soon as they seem to be disloyal, can be violated, as they have seemingly lost their rights to ‘protection’. In her gender-specific vulnerability, Dopdi Mejhen is a widow of a revolutionary husband who is shot dead by the armed forces – she continues to be faithful to him and his political beliefs, both as an extension of her love for him and as something that she sees as her social and political duty. The story centres around her being hunted and caught by the army.  She is brutally raped by multiple army men in the violent process of making her submit to them and betray the political organisation and all that it stood for. Unlike Draupadi of Mahabharata, Dopdi Mejhen, a Santal woman from a small village in Bengal, refuses to beg for someone to come to her rescue, and instead stands in front of the Senanayak (the chief of the army group) without clothes and challenges him to “counter” her.


In the translation of Mahasweta Devi’s (spelled ‘Mahasveta’ by Spivak) Bengali story, Gayatri Spivak’s ending reads:


Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation, What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?


She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak's white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, There isn't a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me - come on, counter me?   


Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.  (Spivak, 1981: 402).[5]   


Mahasweta Devi carved out for Draupadi a completely different life and a new social space. Subsequently, when Gayatri Spivak took up the responsibility of translating this powerful short story, neither she nor the writer could have imagined the impact and aftermath this story, and later, the play, would have. Placing itself within the narratives of exploitation of the lives in the margin it made ripples at the epicentre of debates on excessive use of violence to subjugate and discipline the ‘dangerous’ undisciplined women in marginal societies. Challenging the common practice of shaming and disciplining by parading Dalit and tribal women in India, this story inverts the nakedness into a tool of defiance, whereby the naked body of the woman becomes a tool of resistance.


Draupadi of Manipur 

Mahasweta Devi’s female protagonist in the story Draupadi was a political character, created specifically to critique the state and its oppressive machinery, where the plight of the marginalized and exploited people was highlighted alongside the additional vulnerability of the women in those communities. This story was made into a play by one of the most important contemporary theatre directors of Manipur, Heisnam Kanhailal, who created a production on an adaptation of the story in the year 2000, where Heisnam Sabitri, Kanhailal’s actor wife, played the lead role. Sabitri’s powerful portrayal of Dopdi, who refused to clothe herself when she was presented to the army chief, after she was repeatedly raped by the men of the security forces, stunned and overwhelmed the audience time and again in different performances. The play created a strong impact and induced deep agony by forcing the audience into becoming witness to the heinous and violent acts of violation carried out on women over time and space within the Indian territory. The play, first staged in Imphal and then in Delhi, brought Kanhailal immense fame and critical acclaim in later years along with national recognition to Heisnam Sabitri as an actor of great ability.


However, my focus is here is not restricted only to the play itself but what followed it, and the possible connections between performance and life that makes us think of relationship between enactments and lived realities.  In 2004, Thangjam Manorama Devi, reported as a dangerous member of the People’s Liberation Army by government security personnel, was tortured in the presence of her family at her home and then arrested and taken away by members of Assam Rifles. Her bullet-ridden and ravaged body was found later. According to an official inquiry, Manorama was killed after she had been brutally tortured through the night and repeatedly raped. A historic and unprecedented protest took place as the local community reacted to the death of Manorama. Demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a group of women from the Meitei community of Manipur staged a naked protest in front of the Kangla Fort, where the Assam Rifles had its headquarters, shouting ‘Indian Army Rape Us!’ They also said, “We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh. Maybe this way you can spare our daughters”.[6]


The press reported that an Assam Rifles officer emerged from the compound with folded hands in a manner of pleading, and begged the women to put on clothes. Only after much pleading did the women decide to give up their protest. There may be no direct connection between the performance of Draupadi that uses nakedness as a form of protest and the real-life deployment of nakedness as an embodied resistance after Manorama’s death; but the connections between them through geographical and temporal affinity are too close not to be speculated upon. In any case, Draupadi as a play was strengthened by the 2004 real-life protest, and the protest got a speculative and performative presence in the media because of its similarity to the play. The connection remains unclear and debated, but it is important to note that Heisnam Kanhailal in his interview in Amar Kanwar’s 2007 documentary, The Lightning Testimonies, says that he received a call saying, “Your play Draupadi was performed today by 12 Imas [mothers] in Kangla. The newspapers are calling you a prophet, and the people as well.” (The Lightning Testimonies, 2007).


Even before Manorama Devi’s family knew about her death, they had complained to the police and requested her release from the custody of Assam Rifles. They lodged a criminal complaint and also demanded that they be given the post-mortem report. The Assam Rifles tried to cover its path by lodging a criminal complaint against the victim, and alleged that she had died while trying to escape from custody. On July 12, 2004, a commission of enquiry was ordered by the State Government of Manipur. What followed was a classical case of the state manufacturing and manipulating evidence to strengthen the logic of use of extraordinary force on any ‘dangerous’ subject, repeatedly side-stepping the issue of extra-judicial murder and rape in custody. The police even cremated her body without her family’s permission, ignoring their repeated demands for a proper assessment of the injuries on her body.[7]


The commission report noted that Manorama, “a lady of small stature (4 feet 11 inches)”, could easily have been have been prevented from escaping by “13 armed, well-trained, and able-bodied Assam Rifles personnel… I am pained to note that the firings were unnecessary, a valuable life had been made to suffer harshly at the hands of the reckless armed Assam Rifles Persons”.[8] 


Surabhi Chopra, writing on the use of sexual assault on the women who are considered ‘dangerous’ by the forces responsible, says:

Manorama Devi was by no means the first person to be extra-judicially executed and tortured by the armed forces. But her killing was so brutal that it triggered extensive public protests in Manipur.[9]  (2016: 331)


Chopra also points out that Manorama Devi’s case was an alarming and extraordinarily grave example of the experiences of women under national security laws in a wider spectrum of women’s experiences in India. However, these particular instances alert us to “women’s vulnerability to unlawful violence under the cover of security laws, and the challenges victims face in seeking redress” (2015: 354). The point here is that because of well documented cases like Manorama Devi’s extra-judicial murder, the formal enquiries by the Enquiry Commission set up by the State of Manipur, and finally, the Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission’s directive to the Central Government to pay Rs. 10,00,000 as compensation to Manorama Devi’s family in 2014, the atrocities committed by the Assam Rifles are now well known. As several other such equally serious cases have also been documented by different civil society organizations all over India (2016: 320 – 354), the instances of use of extreme force and several forms of violent abuse (including those of a sexual nature in case of women) are accepted facts.


Draupadi vanishes in the nationalist propaganda

In the context of such reaffirmations of the subjugation of women within the nation-building project, Partha Chatterjee writes:

The new patriarchy advocated by nationalism conferred upon women the honour of a new social responsibility, and by associating the task of female emancipation with the historical goal of sovereign nationhood, bound them to a new, and yet entirely legitimate, subordination.

As with all hegemonic forms of dominance, this patriarchy combined coercive authority with the subtle force of persuasion. This was expressed most generally in the inverted ideological form of the relation of power between the sexes; the adulation of women as goddess or as a mother. (1989: 629 – 630)


About the gendered body politics that enters the theatrical space – in the form of representation and its reception, Mangai writes, “In a patriarchal system especially, in which the female is ‘othered’, the male gaze devalues or over-values the female body. Devaluation takes the form of demonising women, while over-valuing mystifies, de-sexualises, and places her as out of reach”. (2016: 274 - 275). In the systemic devaluation and marginalisation, the absence of women and trivialising of their rights and concerns are all normalised under other prioritised rhetorical concerns. In such spaces, the questioning of myths, of constructions of masculinity and femininity, and of the possible structures of agency, become important work within socialising spaces such as family and educational institutions. Consistent efforts by all such disciplined / socialising spaces are the only way to counter the hegemonic patriarchy from within. In that context, one needs to again reflect upon the incident in Haryana University to see it as a re-establishment of patriarchal stereotypes by allowing women’s voices and concerns to be de-prioritised under the agenda of nationalism and its rhetoric in the public sphere.  


The incident of September 21 - 22, 2016 at the Central University of Haryana, also made us remember the outdated Dramatic Performances Act that the British government introduced in 1876. Like the charges of Sedition, a word used over and over again to put charges against students and other citizen subjects in past months, this act also seems to have made a comeback to impose censorship on intellectual and artistic freedom. Looking at the right-wing protest and violence in yet another university episode - using the now-familiar nationalistic jingoism, one is struck by the relentless use of the rhetoric of sacrifice of armed forces in the propaganda against intellectual freedom. In the process of praising the security forces, all their past deeds are now legitimised to the extent that facts are being replaced by aggressive and hagiographic narratives, mostly by people who are neither concerned nor aware of the facts concerning the atrocities committed by them against women. Neither is the woman’s question of any use in this hyper-masculine chest-beating civil society that is buoyed by the promises of “Achhe Din” or good days, whose only resistance and critique is coming from the University spaces within India. Therefore, the erasure of Draupadi and all the women she represents is just another case of collateral damage at the Central University of Haryana – while she continues her marginalized journey from Mahabharata till now. 


Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University of India, is a cultural anthropologist and is specialized in dance studies. She is a dancer /choreographer trained in Uday Shankar India Culture Centre, Kolkata and continues her research on practice - theory interface in the special focus areas of politics and gender in dance. Trained as a visual anthropologist, she works and teaches research methodology for performance studies and documentation of living traditions as well as intangible cultural heritage masterpieces identified by UNESCO. 

Urmimala's recent publications include several academic papers in journals on dance as a tool for survivors of sexual violence, and her book (co-edited with Aishika Chakraborty) "The Moving Space - Women in Dance" (2017). Her current research is on intercultural connections in Indian dance history. Urmimala is currently the President of World Dance Alliance - Asia Pacific  (WDAAP) and the Country Representative for International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM).  



Chatterjee, Partha (1989): Colonialism, Nationalism and Dangerous Women: The context of India, American Anthropologist, Vol. 16, No. 04 (November), pp 622 - 633.

Chopra, Surabhi (2016): “Dealing with Dangerous Women: Sexual Assault Under Cover of National Security Laws in India” in Boston University International Law Journal, Vol. 34:2, pp 320 – 354. pp 320 – 354.

Karve, Irawati (1991): Yuganta: End of an Epoch, Disha: Hyderabad.

Mangai, A. (2016): “Staging Feminist Theatre” in Thinking Gender Doing Gender: Feminist Scholarship and Practice today, Orient BlackSwan: Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, pp. 274 – 293.

Misri, Deepti (2011): “Are you a Man?”: Performing Naked Protest in India, in Signs, Vol. 36, No. 3, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 603-625.

Nigam, Aditya. “Academics’ Letter to the VC, Central University of Haryana Regarding the ‘Draupadi’ Affair”, https://www.sabrangindia.in/article/academics%E2%80%99-letter-vc-central-university-haryana-regarding-%E2%80%98draupadi%E2%80%99-affair , (accessed on 15/03/2017).

Sarkar Munsi, Urmimala (2016): Draupadi’s Travels and Travails, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), December 10, Vol. 51, Issue No. 50, pp. 12 – 15. http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/50/commentary/draupadis-travels-and-travails.html (accessed on 20/2/2017).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1981): "Draupadi" by Mahasveta Devi, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, Writing and Sexual Difference, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 381-402.

Report of The Commission of the Judicial Enquiry - Manorama Death Enquiry Commission (2004), http://www.hrln.org/hrln/images/stories/pdf/report-of-commission-of-the-judicial-inquiry-manorama-death.pdf. Accessed on 27/10/2016.

[1] This paper is written as an extension of the commentary Draupadi’s Travel and Travails and published by Economic and Political Weekly (EPW, December 10, 2017).

[2] Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, by Irawati Karve, analyses the characters of Mahabharata devoting separate chapters to some of them. The chapter on Draupadi  is seen as a sensitive reading of a woman consistently exploited by the society. On one hand, Karve underlines the patriarchal norms that  insults heaped upon Draupadi and the unjust accusations, and on the other, she also sees Draupadi as a woman bound tightly by the norms and do’s and don’t do’s.

[3]   See Rustom Bharucha’s Peter Brook's ‘Mahabharata’: A View from India in Economic and Political Weekly (August 6, 1988: 16-45).

[4]  Mitra’s Nathabati Anathabat narrative quotes Karve to seek affirmation about the reading of Draupaid’s character by Mitra, much in the same way as many regional songs and plays mention the original author.

[5] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi in Critical Inquiry (1981: 402).

[6] See Human Rights Watch interview with L. Gyaneshori, President, Thangmeiban Apunba Nupi Lup, Imphal

(February 26, 2008), https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/india0908/3.htm. February. Accessed: 22/10/2016.

[7] See Hon. C. Upendra Singh’s report of The Commission of the Judicial Enquiry – Manorama Death Enquiry Commission (2004) http://www.hrln.org/hrln/images/stories/pdf/report-of-commission-of-the-judicial-inquiry-manorama-death.pdf. Accessed: 27/10/2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Surabhi Chopra’s paper “Dealing with Dangerous Women: Sexual Assault Under Cover of National Security Laws in India”   in Boston University International Law Journal, Vol. 34:2, pp 320 – 354. Chopra observes that the women become additionally vulnerable in state actions against terror, where dangerous women face extreme and brutal sexual violence apart from the standard treatment meted out to their male conterparts, whereby according to media reports and human rights documentation the ‘female suspects face sexual violence not just in state custody, but even before they are detained or arrested’ (2016:339).

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